A cluster of wooden houses and a small church huddle next to a hillside. A pair of grimy hands rack up a set of pool balls. A young boy leans on a fence in his youth baseball uniform; his shirt reads “Coal City.”
These are just some of the images in “Coal — 1979,” an exhibit at the University of Louisville. The original black-and-white photos are by Louisville photographer Ted Wathen, who was hired by President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on Coal to document life in America’s coal fields.
Wathen spent six months traveling through five coal-producing states — Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois — photographing the machinery and transport used by coal mining operations, as well as the miners themselves, at work and home. Three other photographers and a group of writers also worked on the project.
At the time of the commission, Wathen said, coal was seen as the best answer to the nation’s energy supply concerns. The commission itself was supported by the Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association and the United Mine Workers of America, who wanted to document the living and working conditions in the coal fields. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia headed up the commission.
“In 1979, coal was booming,” Wathen said. “You couldn’t drive down a road without dodging a coal truck.”
The commission’s work was published in 1980 as “The American Coal Miner: a report on community and living conditions in the coal fields.” And Wathen’s photos, along with the rest of the information gathered, went to the National Archives. He had access to his negatives before they went into storage, however, and he chose the images and made all the prints that are in the current show.
Wathen visited both surface and underground mines. He speaks knowledgeably about the processing and transport machinery he photographed. But it’s the human images that really capture the viewer’s attention.
In one photo, a crowd of women surround a young girl at a Pentecostal church, and Wathen’s camera appears to be right in the middle of the group. Her expression is fearful, maybe overwhelmed. In another image, a pastor in a white shirt stands waist-high in a creek as he prepares for an outdoor baptism.
One of Wathen’s favorite images is of a female coal miner getting ready for work in the lamphouse, where miners put on their gear. She’s probably in her late 20s or early 30s, and she wears tight jeans, a plaid shirt and a hardhat.
“She looks tough,” said Wathen. “And not only tough, she looks good. She’s got her lipstick on, her hair is curled, she’s got a cigarette in her mouth. Nobody’s going to give her any guff.”
The world Wathen photographed has changed almost beyond recognition. Coal mining in the United States is on the decline. Wathen said he hoped that living conditions in Appalachia would change, but he didn’t think an entire culture would nearly vanish.
“When we were in Eastern Kentucky, we would talk about the war between Kentucky and television — how you kept your traditions when everybody’s watching TV, and TV’s giving you a national culture,” Wathen said. “And I’d say television’s winning. A lot of these things that I saw have disappeared.
“I always strove to be an artist, but I also strove to be a documentarian. These pictures are anthropology, they’re sociology and they’re history,” Wathen said.
“Coal — 1979” is on display at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives Gallery in the Ekstrom Library through March 17.